His disciple shall make his labors vain

I know nothing about the Germanwings airline company, or its hiring practices or training policies. Despite knowing nothing, I imagine people at the top of that company are pretty distraught that one of their employees used their plane to kill himself and murder another 149 people. The news today affirms that the responsible person, copilot Andreas Lubitz, reprogrammed the plane’s autopilot to make it crash. Until now, I had in the back of my mind that Lubitz might have passed out. I had read that the recordings picked up the sound of his breathing, but unconscious people still breathe. But this latest information convinces even this reluctant holdout that the crash was deliberate murder by a man who was awake and knew what he was doing.

Properly, sympathy should be outpouring for the families of the people killed. But I also feel some sympathy for the company. This is a nightmare for them. The company might have been negligent in allowing a suicidal person to fly their plane. I don’t know. But I don’t suppose Germanwings was any more negligent that every other airline.

Anyway, it reminds me of a poem by Rudyard Kipling. It is called “The Disciple” and is reprinted below. Kipling wrote it in 1932 – not long before he died. He placed this poem, as he often did, at the end of a short story as a sort of color commentary on the episode he’d just told.

Rudyard Kipling


Kipling isn’t very popular or fashionable any more, so it is no surprise that there is almost no discussion of this poem online. What little there is simply suggests that it is “pessimistic” and that the titular disciple is Paul of the New Testament.

Well, I beg to differ. I think the disciple is anyone who ever took someone else’s good idea and represented it badly, who ever broke faith with colleagues, or flew an honest company’s airplane into the side of a mountain.

Certainly, the poem is full of specific references to Jesus (“go to Calvary, swords shall pierce him, mingling blood with gall”) so the most obvious disciples are his. But a halfway careful read shows Kipling intends it to be more universal than that. He references three distinct purveyors of a message: the carpenter Jesus, the cameleer Mohammed, and the dreaming Buddha. He’s not saying these three are equal; he is saying all three have been badly represented by their adherents down through the years. And that is worth contemplating. We shouldn’t let the flaws of the disciples mar our respect for what may be decent ideas.


If you are one of those people who can’t read poetry, here’s a cartoon saying roughly the same thing:

Source: lolsnaps.com


The rest of you, enjoy the real thing:

He that hath a Gospel
To loose upon Mankind,
Though he serve it utterly–
Body, soul and mind–
Though he go to Calvary
Daily for its gain–
It is His Disciple
Shall make his labour vain.
He that hath a Gospel
For all earth to own–
Though he etch it on the steel,
Or carve it on the stone–
Not to be misdoubted
Through the after-days–
It is His Disciple
Shall read it many ways.
It is His Disciple
(Ere Those Bones are dust )
Who shall change the Charter,
Who shall split the Trust–
Amplify distinctions,
Rationalize the Claim;
Preaching that the Master
Would have done the same.
It is His Disciple
Who shall tell us how
Much the Master would have scrapped
Had he lived till now–
What he would have modified
Of what he said before.
It is His Disciple
Shall do this and more….
He that hath a Gospel
Whereby Heaven is won
( Carpenter, or cameleer,
Or Maya’s dreaming son ),
Many swords shall pierce Him,
Mingling blood with gall;
But His Own Disciple
Shall wound Him worst of all!

“We are Simply Incapable”

When I was a kid, I assumed that the people in charge knew what they were doing. Now that I’m older and able to look more deeply into things I can see how often that isn’t true. The name of the blog – Jordan or Styx – asks whether the next step we take will carry us across to something like the Israelite promised land, or to something like the mythological underworld of Hades.

Some of the things I complain about worked well enough in the past. But either circumstances are different or we aren’t the same people we used to be. For some reason, those practices no longer serve. America used to be the world’s breadbasket, but our food production system now is both unhealthy and unsustainable. The wealth imbalance is so far out of whack that it cannot correct itself. And so on.

From Louisiana comes a new affirmation of my theme.

Attorney Marty Stroud has published a letter in the Shreveport Times newspaper and has given interviews expressing remorse for his part in the wrongful conviction in 1984 of a man named Glenn Ford. Ford was innocent, but he sat on Louisiana’s death row for 30 years. Now Stroud is urging the state to compensate Ford, and is taking the responsibility for the unjust verdict. It’s not a case of faulty or incomplete evidence or a bad jury. Stroud says justice simply didn’t seem important at the time.

Attorney Marty Stroud (Shreveport Times)


“In 1984, I was 33 years old. I was arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning.”


It seems easy for Stroud to issue this apology while calling on the state to compensate Ford for his ruined life. The money isn’t coming out of his pocket, and the wasted years aren’t his loss. But if you click on the link and watch the video of Stroud’s comments, he certainly gives the impression of a humble and contrite heart. He apologizes because that is all he can do, and his apology focuses the guilt on himself and on the system.

“No one should be given the ability to impose a sentence of death in any criminal proceeding. We are simply incapable of devising a system that can fairly and impartially impose a sentence of death. We are all fallible human beings.”

Stroud is not the only person to reach this conclusion. In 2003, Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 condemned prisoners.  Ryan declared that the entire process was “arbitrary and capricious, and therefore immoral.” In many of the cases, there was no doubt that the inmate was guilty of the crime. But even in those cases, Ryan said there was doubt as to whether the death sentence was justified: “Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error — error in determining guilt, and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die,” Ryan said. “What effect was race having? What effect was poverty having?”

In 2011, then Illinois Governor Pat Quinn did it again, commuting the sentences of 15 recently convicted prisoners. Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011.

I don’t want to discuss the ultimate rightness or wrongness of the death penalty. I only want to say that, even if the act itself has moral or pragmatic justification, it is only justifiable when done in a way that is serious and thoughtful of the value of all life. (I’m not saying this is enough to justify it, mind you.) Marty Stroud’s confession dwells painfully on the irreverent, ambitious, youth he was when he argued the case against Ford. We find a useful contrast in history.

Meister Frantz Schmidt


Joel F. Harrington is author of a book called, The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century. It is the memoir of a professional executioner in Nuremburg, a man of high standards.

The “good death” Meister Frantz Schmidt, an executioner in 16th-century Nuremberg, sought was essentially a drama of religious redemption, in which the poor sinner acknowledged and atoned for his or her crimes, voluntarily served as an admonitory example, and in return was granted a swift death and the promise of salvation. It was, in that sense, the last transaction a condemned prisoner would make in this world.”


Medieval justice is a  watchword for cruelty. And Schmidt was capable of dispatching a condemned man or woman with a rope, a sword or ax, a rack, a wheel, or a burning stake. Yet he did each execution with a high and noble conscientiousness:

“Every beheading ended . . . with Frantz turning to the judge or his representative and asking the question that would complete the legal ritual: “Lord Judge, have I executed well?” “You have executed as judgment and law have required” came the formulaic response, to which the executioner replied, “For that I thank God and my master who has taught me such art.”


So here’s my suggestion. Let’s strive to build a cohort of men and women as conscientious as Meister Schmidt, and a solid consensus about what we want to accomplish as a community and a nation. Once we’ve done that, then we can commence to write decent laws and administer them fairly. But until we’ve got that cohort and that community, everything done by authority is suspect.


[The summary of Harrington’s book from which the quotes are drawn appeared in Slate online magazine.]



America’s hero

Quick! Name America’s greatest folk hero.

By “folk hero,” I’m talking about the character from history, art or literature whose story says something particular about our country and its culture and legacy.

England’s folk hero is King Arthur. The story of Arthur has been told many times in many ways. For Sir Thomas Mallory and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the Arthur story is a handbook of chivalry. Geoffrey of Monmouth treated it as straight history. The oafish Disney version loses the magic in its source material, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. Under Monty Python’s creative touch, the focus shifts to severed limbs and shrubberies.

Despite the many and diverse adaptations, the Arthur story retains a kernel of truth. There certainly was a Battle of Camlann, fought around 537AD, in which native Britons resisted Anglo-Saxon invaders. Among the defenders was a person named Arthur or Artognou or Arturus or something. The real Arthur’s exploits were local and minor, but that doesn’t matter at all. He defended the island from threat, thus personifying the British ideal. A thousand years later, Shakespeare’ Henry II expressed the thought rather well:

 This other Eden, demi-paradise,                                                                        This fortress built by Nature for herself                                                    Against infection and the hand of war,                                                           This happy breed of men, this little world,                                                  This precious stone set in the silver sea,                                                     Which serves it in the office of a wall,                                                                 Or as a moat defensive to a house,                                                                      Against the envy of less happier lands,                                                          This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England


Almost everything written about Arthur is invention, but it all serves the idea of English exceptionalism. Arthur failed ultimately to repel the Anglo-Saxon invaders. The place he called Britain came to be known as Angle-land. Yet even despite that, Arthur remains close to the soul of it. Arthur laid a foundation upon which later generations of artists laid their particularly British inventiveness. Americans Lerner and Loewe or the Frenchman Cretien de Troyes took up the story, too, but it remains British.

Arthur is purely British, but not simply British. It encompasses particular events in England’s history. According to some versions, Arthur pulled the sword Excalibur out of a stone. Others say, “The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water.” Either way, the tale explains early metallurgy and how the shift from stone to metal affected the Celtic people.

Something like this, perhaps:


Folk legends are, perhaps, nature’s way of keeping alive the really important things that would otherwise be relegated to a single line in a stuffy book.

Anyway, Arthur is England’s folk hero. Roland is the French one, El Cid the Spanish. The Kyrgyz of Central Asia have a tremendous epic poem celebrating the character Manas, whose story rivals the others in cultural significance, and exceeds the others by a wide margin in length.


But who is the American folk hero?

I maintain it is John Henry. I’ll explain how the steel-driving man fits the bill in a moment. My first argument for the vitality of John Henry is the number of songs recorded about him. This article says the top names in song are Johnny and Mary, but it looks only at pop songs since Chuck Berry and isn’t counting individual characters. Jesus is, by a vast margin, the real person named most often in songs. The Virgin Mary, Moses and perhaps Napoleon and Bonny Prince Charlie follow at increasing distances. From time to time, we learn that a song may have been inspired by a real person (e.g., the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby or Bob Dylan’s Sara or Pearl Jam’s Jeremy or the Allman Brothers’ Jessica). But each of these is only one mention of a person (Two in the case of Dylan’s Sara and Idiot Wind).  John Henry has been evoked by dozens of musical artists – more than almost any other specific character you can think of. (Please satisfy yourself of this by searching on song titles by name in Google, or Spotify or the iTunes store.)

John Henry also takes on the nature of a folk hero because the many versions of his story are tailored this way and that to suit the storyteller. If it were merely a good song, it might be recorded many times but the wording would be very similar in every version. Gershwin’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It” has been recorded hundreds of times with little to no lyrical variation. But the versions of John Henry vary as widely as the versions of King Arthur. Here’s an article from a bluegrass music website that concurs with me and adds a few additional details.

Johnny Cash’s rambling version presents a cocky man who can “Turn a jack, lay a track, and pick and shovel too,” and seems confident that those are the only skills that matter. Sometimes John has a prodigious childhood. In one version he begins driving steel when he is nine days old. In another, he has the gift of foresight:

John Henry was about three days old, sittin’ on his papa’s knee.     He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel;                                said, ‘Hammer’s gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord.       Hammer’s gonna be the death of me.’


Other details vary, too. Sometimes John Henry has a little woman named Polly Anne, who, when John Henry gets sick and has to go to bed, Polly she drove steel like a man. Some sources tell you John’s woman was named Mary Magdalene, and she loved to hear him sing. Others say it was the water boy who loved to hear him sing. But whatever the variations on peripheral points, on the main event of John Henry’s life, the many versions agree. (I have 33 versions of the song on my iPod and they all reach this climax:

The captain said to John Henry
“Gonna bring that steam drill ’round
Gonna bring that steam drill out on the job
Gonna whop that steel on down, Lord, Lord
Gonna whop that steel on down”

John Henry told his captain
“A man ain’t nothing but a man
But before I let your steam drill beat me down
I’d die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord
I’d die with a hammer in my hand”

Now the man that invented the steam drill
Thought he was mighty fine
But John Henry made fifteen feet
The steam drill only made nine, Lord, Lord
The steam drill only made nine

John Henry hammered in the mountains
His hammer was striking fire
But he worked so hard, he broke his poor heart
He laid down his hammer and he died, Lord, Lord
He laid down his hammer and he died


This single man-against-machine contest probably never happened quite like in the song, any more than a moistened bint lobbed a scimitar at Arthur. But millions of American men’s and women’s livelihoods through the 19th and 20th centuries hinged on whether a machine could do a person’s job. The Great Bend (not “Big Ben” or “Big Bend”) Tunnel mentioned in many versions of John Henry was dug around 1870. This was around the time when steam-powered machinery was becoming practical enough to do work as effectively as men could do.  And so Talcott, West Virginia is considered the home of John Henry.

Talcott is not far off Interstate 64, but the roads leading there are narrow and winding. My wife and daughter agreed to the detour when we were driving east last summer, and when we arrived at Talcott the first thing we saw was the historical marker.

Historic marker, Talcott, WV
Historic marker, Talcott, WV


We hadn’t been out of the car long when a man came strolling up the road and shared some local details. He was certain that John Henry was a real man. He told us how to get down to the mouth of the tunnel, where the statue of John Henry stands now. (It had been defaced with paint and shotgun pellets many times, and the townspeople had moved it to a safer spot.)

John Henry statue, Talcott, WV
John Henry statue, Talcott, WV


The tunnel is no longer used. There is a larger one just off to the left. The old one is fenced off and dark. And yet it is still, undeniably, there. Looking at the tunnel, my thought was that most of the
“larger-than-life” imagery of the songs is off-target. The tunnel is a mile long and half a mile deep under the mountain. It is a real hole through real rock. And it was dug by real men. In songs, John Henry could work prodigies with a hammer. In reality, he (by “he” I mean the hundreds of ordinary men who did the work) was probably very sore, very hungry, and very underpaid. That makes the whole affair more appreciable than a mere tall tale.

Great Bend Tunnel, Talcott, WV
Great Bend Tunnel, Talcott, WV


Before I close, some special attention is due to recent songs about John Henry. If a folk hero is an enduring symbol of a people, then the story associated with him (or her) will adapt to changing times. So what do John Henry‘s more recent chroniclers say?

Wookiefoot is an eclectic band that covers the gamut from rap to reggae. In their 2001 version, the singer is perplexed about what the story means: “John Henry had a hammer slammer through a mountainside his eyes you’d see a new machine was coming running down his pride in school they taught he was a hero throw yourself in front of never stopping industry [I’m] confused cuz in the end he died.” (Most American millennials and Gen Xers think a “hero” is someone whose example should be emulated. They are less likely to apply the word to someone by whose sacrifices they have benefited.)

Drive-By Truckers, a Georgia-based rock group, have adapted John Henry yet again. And in their version John Henry’s story becomes that of every man or woman who was replaced by technology or saw his job go offshore.

It didn’t matter if he won, if he lived, or if he’d run.
They changed the way his job was done. Labor costs were high.
The new machine was cheap as hell & only John could work as well,
So they left him laying where he fell the day John Henry died.


It makes me proud that America’s folk hero was a working man, who stood and fell by the quality of his service. It makes me a bit squeamish, though, to recognize that his story ends as it does. Arthur was every bit as much a failure as John Henry, but the English provide him with a boat to Avalon.  America’s folk hero was doomed from the start.


Recently there has been a series of very good, thought-provoking articles on the subject of America’s collapse. Not the collapse of the whole country, but of the system of government in Washington. The participants in the conversation aren’t predicting violence or economic collapse: not Road Warrior or Book of Eli. They are saying the way government works is not going to continue.

The articles are by smart young writers and they are all worth reading, but I’ll summarize them and then add my two cents.

(Source: Columbia Pictures)


Matthew Yglesias of Vox started the discussion on March 2nd with an article titled, American democracy is doomed. He starts with the conundrum that almost nobody seriously predicts collapse, but almost everybody is discontent with the way the country is headed. Yglesias focuses on two trends. First, Congress seems less and less capable of fulfilling its responsibilities. It fills its time with meaningless showcase votes, and punctuates its do-nothing calendar with occasional end-of-fiscal-year crises. Second, year by year presidents of both parties take on more power and authority than their predecessors had.

The breakdown of American constitutional democracy is a contrarian view. But it’s nothing more than the view that rather than everyone being wrong about the state of American politics, maybe everyone is right. Maybe Bush and Obama are dangerously exceeding norms of executive authority. Maybe legislative compromise really has broken down in an alarming way. And maybe the reason these complaints persist across different administrations and congresses led by members of different parties is that American politics is breaking down.


Yglesias provides strong evidence that the governmental balance of power is shifting. But his argument that America is doomed relies on academic writings and examples from Latin America. One might argue that those examples aren’t relevant to America. So Vox writer Dylan Matthews takes up the tale in, This is how the American system of government will die. He builds on Yglesias’ point about congressional dysfunction:

 The risk is that congressional gridlock — which will only worsen as parties polarize on ideological lines — will make major revisions to statutes and changes in the fiscal status quo next to impossible. Any president worth his salt is going to want to make major revisions to statutes and to alter the fiscal status quo. . . . So they’re going to gradually start using executive powers to adjust policy in those domains. President Obama has been very open about this.


And this trend, carried out over time, will lead to a much stronger  (and eventually unconstitutional) presidency. Matthews says that by 2050, the Congress will just be a rubber stamp to ratify what powerful presidents decide.

Oliver P. Morton in US Capital Statuary Hall

America has already seen an example, at the state level, of a complete executive takeover. Oliver P. Morton was Indiana’s governor during the Civil War. He was a fervent Union man. But after the election of 1862, he faced a state legislature that resisted much of his effort. So Morton locked out the legislature and ran the state and the war effort unilaterally (and illegally). Hoosiers re-elected the dictator to a new term in 1864. Today, Morton’s statue stands in Statuary Hall in the US Capital Building. H ewas effective and worked for good. But the way he did it certainly fits in Matthews’ idea of excessive executive power.

Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine online also responds to Yglesias. Chait agrees the imbalances and intractability are serious problems. But even so, There is a chance American democracy is not doomed. The problem as he sees it is ideological extremism that will go away on its own:

[T]he conservative movement’s control over the Republican Party is probably not sustainable. American conservatism’s power is deeply rooted to white American racial identity. That identity formed a plausible national majority for much of America’s history, but its time is rapidly slipping into the past. The steady growth of racial minorities is projected to continue for decades. Eventually Republicans will adjust to the new demography, which means they will have to abandon conservatism as we know it, which has only appealed to white voters in the context of racial polarization.


The next contribution to the conversation is from Ezra Klein, Vox’s founder. He argues, America’s political system isn’t going to collapse, It’s going to muddle through. Note, first of all, that “muddling through” is a technical term with a long and noble tradition going back to a 1959 essay by Charles E. Lindblom. I read it in graduate school, and Klein probably did, too. Klein argues, per Lindblom, that America has a genius for coping with lowered expectations.

 This isn’t a critique of the political system our Founders envisioned. It’s an admission that we are not in the political system our Founders envisioned. The Constitution was designed for a political system without organized parties, where senators were elected by state legislatures and where no one had ever heard of a filibuster. The system we have today is not the system the Founders believed they were building.


As to what “muddling through” means:

Much that needs to get done simply won’t get done. What does get done won’t be done well. Over time, the public will grow angry with this situation, but they won’t know exactly who to be angry at, nor how to fix it. It is hard to apportion blame for economic growth that should have happened but didn’t; for a tax code that should have been simplified but wasn’t; for successful companies that could have been started here but weren’t; for government services that should be better but aren’t. America will muddle through — the cost of our political system’s problems won’t be a spectacular collapse so much as they will be the slow divergence between what our living standards could be and what they are.


By this point, Klein’s “not gonna happen” starts to sound pretty awful — almost as bad as (in fact almost exactly the same as) Yglesias’ collapse.


The last word comes from Carl Eric Scott at the conservative National Review.: Democracy’s Doom and the Unserious Constitutionalism of Vox.  Scott finds a great deal not to like in what the others (all liberals) have written. They say expanding presidential initiatives have occurred under both Democrats and Republicans, Scott disagrees, finding niggling distinctions that imply that Obama is worse. Scott mentions the Constitution in almost every paragraph, so he wins.

Now for my thoughts. I think all five writers are focused too narrowly on just the top level of government. That is an occupational hazard of living in Washington, of course. The national government is, indeed, the tail that wags the American dog. But when a dog dies, the tail stops wagging, too. So the moral, social and economic problems of the whole country cannot be dismissed even by someone who is chiefly concerned with what happens on Capital Hill.


Anyway, I think I want to take Klein’s argument in a different direction. What if, perhaps, the collapse has already happened?  What if the “muddle” Klein speaks of has already become the normal state of affairs?

While thinking about this post, I asked my family what images come to their minds when they think of economic or governmental or social collapse. I expected to hear, Planet of the Apes or Jericho or Book of Eli. But my wife instead mentioned the pictures of decayed and collapsing buildings in Detroit. Not fiction, but reality. Not an impending (but still avoidable) future, but today’s reality.


Vacant backlot in Detroit (Source: globalmews.ca)


There are plenty of people who interpret Detroit’s decline as a particular case of failure due not to a general collapse but to the flaws of Democrat Party policies or to the inability of black people to govern. (Excuse me for not providing links to the sources of these arguments.) But to those who would say Detroit is a special case, I’d ask their explanation for the widespread decline of rural America. I think the following picture is made more poignant by the fact that it is offered for sale by “Fine Art America.”


Ruined farmstead in Utah (Source: FineArtAmerica)


Note I’m not simply saying that one abandoned city block and one abandoned farm prove anything. I’m assuming that readers know that every city has vacant and abandoned buildings that have been replaced by cheaper apartments and tract houses. Replacing old things with something better is great, but abandoning what is good and replacing it with nothing is, to me, evidence of decay. I’m assuming readers know that America’s agriculture system is in crisis, too.

So, maybe Ezra Klein is right that American will muddle through, avoiding turmoil by accepting lower and lower standards and more frequent outrages.

Is that what we want?

Looking Out My Back Door

Here is a picture of the back door of my house:

back deck


Here also is a picture of the back door of my house:



Astute readers may notice disparity in the two pictures. For those who missed it, the top picture is lush and green and dotted with red, pink, yellow and blue flowers. The sunshine filters through heavy foliage of locust leaves in the foreground and fir and maples further back, reaching the ground in only a few mottled places. The bottom picture is blanketed in uniform frigid and sterile white.

The two pictures present a radically different – almost contradictory – impression. How, a reasonable person might ask, could two such dissimilar things be the same? Certainly most things as dissimilar as these two are not “the same.” How can we conclude that these are two pictures of the same house?

Some people, but far from all the people in the world, have seen my back door themselves and have stood on the deck and entered the house through the very door in the picture. For them, belief is easy and is based on experience.

Many more will be convinced by evident similarities: the pergola and fencing is similar in both pictures. The evergreen tree in the background, trimmed in white in one picture and green in the other, is the same tree. The brown storage locker to the right of the door looks the same in both pictures. Still, despites some similarities, there remain differences.

Many people will explain the disparity in the pictures by applying their own knowledge and experience of the seasons. Taking weather into account, it’s not hard to see that the same place could look like the top picture on, say, June 30, 2013, and look like the bottom on a different day, such as January 5, 2014. (Or March 1, 2015!)

One person might say, “Both pictures are obviously the same house. The construction is just the same in both. The weather conditions don’t matter.” That would lead them to the right conclusion . . . in this case. But as a heuristic, it wouldn’t hold up for long. And it’s not even correct. The storm door is actually different. Ah hah! It’s not the same house after all, Watson! Or did I replace the door sometime between the two pictures? (I did.)

Another person might insist the pictures are of the same house, but the green one is faked. They would conjure up a motive to justify their opinion: “He’s probably trying to sell the house, and he ‘shopped the weather to make the pictures more appealing. Why else would there be two similar pictures?” Shoving your own fabricated idea into someone else’s brain so you can defame them with it is a hateful thing, but I’ve seen it done.

People have tremendous abilities to take evidence or leave it, and to draw the right or wrong conclusion. There is growing evidence that few people believe scientific evidence, or at least that scientific evidence alone is not compelling or persuasive. Back in 1968, the rule was “Believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear.” But today, the rule is, “Accept evidence only when it supports what you already believe.”

Professor Dan Kahan of Yale University has made a specialty of researching how people become convinced of anything. He finds that intelligence isn’t enough. On a controversial issue such as climate change, Kahan and his colleagues find intelligent people at both extremes – and almost only at the extremes. Smart people care enough to have an opinion. But their flawed mental processes often lead to strong convictions for the wrong conclusion.

Given two research report with opposite conclusions, hardly anyone critiques both reports and puts trust in the one with the better methodology. Hardly anyone vigorously seeks out a third, a fourth, and an Nth research report until the question is really settled. What most people do is scorn the report that conflicts with the answer they prefer and embrace the report with the conclusion they like.

Sometimes when they do this, they pick and choose from the same source, saying, in effect, “I am convinced by A, and A is not convincing.” This often happens with Biblical conversations. Westboro Baptist Church based its nationwide campaign of revulsion on a single verse (Leviticus 18:22), insisting on the vital importance of obeying the revealed word of a holy God, while ignoring other verses from the same holy source (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 4:11: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life”) that would seem to forbid their sign waving, headline grabbing tactics.

In October of 2012, the despicable business tycoon Jack Welch declared the latest national employment figures were faked. The numbers he disbelieved were from the same source he had relied on his entire career. They are the only source for monthly national employment that exists. Yet Welch jumped against the numbers because they showed growth under a president he dislikes.

Not everyone has the mental flexibility to lie like Jack Welch or Westboro’s late pastor Fred Phelps. More often, people who make wrong conclusions are honest, but limited in imagination. My family met people in Central Asia who couldn’t grasp that there are different animals in America than in their country. When we described a brownish four-footed creature with a tail; a creature that sometimes stands on its back feet and is 50-60 cm when full-grown; that it has a warm fur and is often hunted, they declared it a marmot. When we told them we were talking about something different called a raccoon, they’d say there’s nothing called a raccoon and tell us we were talking about a marmot.

We knew people in West Africa for whom northern winter weather was incomprehensible. They could “know” it as a schoolbook lesson, but they couldn’t believe it in their head and heart. They actually had a pretty good reason for being wrong. Throughout West Africa the prevailing weather patterns for half the year are shaped by the Harmattan wind, which comes southward from the Sahara Desert, carrying dry air and fine, white dust – so much dust that the sky is clouded out and white particles collect on flat surfaces.

The African Harmattan. (Source: constative.com)


Peace Corps Volunteers and tourists through the years have been puzzled by West Africans’ blasé reaction to descriptions of northern winter weather. But those Africans have seen white flakes falling from the sky between November and March every year of their lives. Yes, many of them describe the Harmattan dust as “snow,” believing that Santa’s sleigh runs on it.

Or this. I talked with some villagers as they tasted the water from a newly dug deep well. It was their first encounter with anything cooler than ambient temperature. They complained the water was “hot.” It wasn’t hot, it was 50-odd degrees, like everything coming from a sufficient depth in the earth. But “hot” was the only word in their vocabulary that conveyed “at variance with the ambient temperature.”

Lest anyone read this as a put down of African or Asian intellect, I’ll also recall the afternoon a man asked if it was true that the sun shines in the US while it is dark where we were. He had heard the idea, but couldn’t grasp it. We spent half an hour together, looking at shadows made by trees and walking around my house in opposite directions. When we were done, he believed in the motion of the sun not only because he’d been told it, but because his own understanding made it possible and comprehensible. I’d say that man had more in common with Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo than half the Ph.Ds. in America. Anyway, don’t forget the recent controversy in America over a black and blue dress.

Despite the mental flexibility we are capable of, we often don’t use it. People used to believe what they were told.  Science writer Joel Achenbach tells us those days are gone:

Gone are the days when a small number of powerful institutions – elite universities, encyclopedias and major news organizations – served as gatekeepers of scientific information. The internet has democratized (access to knowledge), which is a good thing. But along with cable TV, the web has also made it possible to live in a “filter bubble” that lets in only the information with which you already agree.

Achenbach’s article cites the case of a genuine scientist named Liz Neeley, whose own father was a climate change skeptic. She finally got through to him, according to Achenbach, by declaring that her entire life convinced her of the truth of climate change and that he could not hold the opposite view while valuing her as a person. Neeley’s father softened his position.


If Neeley’s success is instructive, the first step to steering people in the right direction is not what is called “education.” Rather, it is to build personal relationships up to the point where they can be used as a lever. It not enough to say, “I’m telling you!” And it’s not enough to say, “Trust me on this.” The liars say the same thing. But if people actually do trust you and care about your good will, then just maybe you’re in a position to guide them.